A SLAW hat-tip to Brenda Wong and her co-blogger Karen Sawatzky at Library Technician Dialog for making me aware of the following online slideshow called If you Want to Work in Libraries, Here are 10 Things You Need to Know by Ned Potter.
I think the author nicely captures some of the opportunities for working in the information field (e.g., working with people and technology) along with some of the challenges (e.g., constant change and tough competition).
Many of these topics arose in my regular guest lecture to the FIS 2133 Legal Literature and Librarianship class earlier this week at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, taught by John Papadopoulos and Sooin Kim, especially in our discussion in response to the Debates on the Value of Law Firm Librarians summarized on SLAW. Eve Leung, a Research Librarian at the Ontario Legislative Assembly Library, was also a guest participant in the discussion.
However, I am not sure I was entirely satisfied with my answers to the class on the role of law librarians and why I think there remains a need for them in the age of Google and relatively easy online access to information. What follows here, then, is an attempt to better articulate the role of law librarians and why I see a positive future for this role. And although I take responsibility for the comments that follow, I have most certainly benefited from the group discussion at the session and have likely incorporated snippets from the various speakers and students in the class.
1) Specialized knowledge/skills: What separates most law librarians from lawyers is that librarians have specialized knowledge of sources of law and the skills necessary to efficiently and effectively search those sources of law, integrating both print and online sources. As such, on the risk of law librarians being replaced by lawyers who will “self-service” in the age of the Internet, I don’t see this is a problem, especially since most lawyers will readily admit they lack sufficient skills in this area or are otherwise too busy to do such work effectively.
2) Information overload: Related to this is the threat of information overload. Law librarians can play an important role to filter information for lawyers. For example, law librarians can easily exercise their professional judgment to critically limit the circulation of current awareness news to the most important/relevant news for a particular lawyer or practice group. Likewise, within the context of a particular research project, law librarians will tend to be more efficient than lawyers in going through large volumes of amassed research to focus on the most relevant or useful material. In addition, many librarians will be better situated than lawyers with technologies such as RSS feeds or Lexis Publisher in knowing how to most effectively filter and distribute relevant information.
3) Value-add: To the extent that Google does not yet answer everything law-related, law librarians are well poised to add value to the information they provide to lawyers. If a lawyer asks for a copy of a court decision, it is a matter of minutes at little or no cost to also provide the lawyer note-up records for the decision along with leading case comments, blog posts and more recent cases on point, something many lawyers might not do (or might not know how to do) for themselves.
4) Strategic Partnerships: There is much to be said for law librarians to break out of the “cocoon” of the law library and partner strategically with other staff within the organization. This could include cooperating with conducting competitive or business intelligence with the Marketing Department or working more closely with Information Technology staff on intranet or project management projects. My lecture in part discussed my paper The Evolution of Law-Related Knowledge Management in North America – Opportunities for Law Librarians. I strongly feel that many law librarians are under-represented in knowledge management within law firms and are short-selling themselves and their organizations by not being more actively involved. The more that law librarians look to help others within the organization, the more indispensable they make themselves, which is never a bad thing.
5) Training: An important aspect of what most law librarians do is to train their patrons on effective legal research and information literacy. Even if we assume that the ease of access to online information means that lawyers will be doing more on their own, they (and particularly students) would still need or benefit from some basic training and most law librarians are the best situated to conduct such training.
6) Changing Roles / Adapting to Change: One of the 10 things identified in the slide show at the start of this post on things you need to know about being a librarian is the need to be able to adapt to change. This is a major phenomenon within the law library industry: changes in technology, changes in resources, changes in the law. As such, the ability to adapt to and embrace change is especially important for law librarians.
On the issue of the risk of legal process outshoring (LPO) taking away the jobs of law librarians and legal researchers: I am increasingly uncertain of my standard response that this does not threaten me in my work. My standard rationale for not being too concerned include the following points:
- Print: Print resources resources remain critical to most legal research and many LPO firms will not necessarily have adequate print collections of law-related “print only” materials, such as certain loose-leaf publications, CLE papers or other monographs.
- Localized knowledge of laws/customs: Practicing law in Toronto brings with it localized knowledge of the reputation of certain judges or counsel that can impact your assessment of the materials you are researching and most LPO firms will not have this localized knowledge.
- Localized knowledge of users: researchers or librarians embedded in the local organization will know their users better than most off-site researchers.
- Confidentiality concerns: Although at the risk of sounding xenophobic or paranoid, there exists a perception (I think) that “keeping it in-house” means a tighter control over confidentiality and privacy.
I of course realize the growing weakness of these defences. If that is true, then perhaps there is a risk of some of the work done by North American law librarians being out-sourced. If so, there is an increased need for North American law librarians to both focus better on how they can contribute to their organization’s “bottom line” at the same time as better marketing themselves and their “valued-added” or unique services that cannot be done better by someone else.
I welcome comments from those both within and outside of the law library community.